Interview: Alice Tepper Marlin on how to hold companies accountable in a globalized world
Who made the shirt you’re wearing? Were the cloth cutters or seamstresses treated fairly? Did the factory comply with reasonable environmental standards? If you have no clue, then check out the work of Alice Tepper Marlin. She believes we all have a right to know about the impact our choices have on the world. And she has created an organization to make it possible.
President and founder of Social Accountability International and dubbed the “architect of corporate responsibility” for her work dating back to the 1960s, Marlin has spent the past decade spearheading SA8000, the first universal social accountability certification for manufacturers. The voluntary standard has become the benchmark for socially responsible business practices. Today, 1.2 million workers are employed in SA8000-certified factories and farms throughout five continents.
Dowser talked with Marlin about the challenges and opportunities for creating a more socially responsible global economy.
Dowser: What led you to found SAI?
Marlin: In the 1960s I set up an organization, the Council on Economic Priorities. It did research to make it possible for Wall Street to do socially responsible investment. By the ’90s, CEP’s ratings were becoming increasingly misleading, because they were based on data about the executive offices and stores, but not on the factories—because thanks to globalization the factories weren’t in America anymore. We couldn’t find records about the environmental impact, community impact, and working conditions where the goods were actually produced, so we created SAI to address that problem.
How did you go about it?
Initially, our major challenge was to develop a global social accountability standard—the SA8000. Then we set up a system for certifying compliance and auditing. The final step was to do training and capacity building for employers seeking certification for their companies—that’s increasingly what we’re focused on. We want to leverage our impact by getting major companies not only to implement this system themselves, but also to ask their suppliers to do it.
What are the main challenges in your work?
One is that there’s really no international law in this area, so how do we convince employers, brands, and consumers to use fair trade standards? Then there’s the huge scale of the problems: large companies may have 20, 50, or 70,000 suppliers in as many as 125 countries. Add the fact that they don’t buy from all of those suppliers directly; they sometimes use agents, licenses, or importers. Usually the big brands don’t even know who all their suppliers are. To ensure decent labor conditions around the world, we have to map millions and millions of facilities. This whole question is what we call traceability.
- Pineapple giant risks losing social accountability certification: SA8000 audits uncovers noncompliance at Dole Food Company.
- Setting the Standard for Global Economy: A four-minute video interview with Marlin by Ashoka.
- Social Innovation Conversations: Ashoka podcast with Marlin (length: 48 minutes).
When you put it that way, it sounds like an impossible task.
It’s a huge undertaking, but one can do it. For instance, we’re working with a Dutch development agency to create a fully traceable organic cotton system in China. We provide training and technical assistance to assist factories at every point along the supply chain—ginning, weaving, cutting, sewing—to help them to improve their conditions to a level that meets SA8000 certification standards. Some of the factories have achieved this certification. The garments are sold in Holland with a special tag that enables you to go online and see how the garment was produced from the factories all the way back to the farm. This is our ultimate goal—to trace the whole supply chain—but usually we only look at first or second level producers.
Is the SA8000 standard cost-effective for companies?
Those who are certified believe it is. There certainly are significant costs in complying with the standard. For example, with the standard, you can no longer require workers to work 80 hours a week; you might have to lower the number to 60 hours and let workers choose if they want to work overtime. But there’s a [business] benefit to this: People who get enough sleep have fewer accidents and produce better quality products.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Julie Furbush for Dowser